PETERSBURG - Six-year-old Marissa
Pattie of Springfield stood Monday morning along the
edge of the Sangamon River at Lincoln's New Salem State
Historic Site, skipping stones with her sisters and
friends and waiting for her first glimpse of a flatboat.
The large, wooden vessel soon glided downriver, and
swarms of people who'd gathered on the bank and a nearby
bridge cheered as the seven-man crew guided the boat
with long, maple oars to a makeshift dock.
The men - decked out in 1830s attire - were
commemorating Abraham Lincoln's arrival at New Salem by
flatboat 175 years ago.
"Are you taking on water?" Guy Sternberg of rural
Petersburg called out.
According to historical records, Lincoln, his cousin,
John Hanks, and stepbrother, John Johnston, constructed
a flatboat in 1831 along the Sangamon River at Sangamo
Town, which was about seven miles northwest of
Laden with cargo and headed to New Orleans, the boat
became stuck on the milldam at New Salem. Under
Lincoln's leadership, the goods in the stern were
unloaded until the weight shifted and the boat righted
itself. Borrowing an auger from the local cooper shop,
Lincoln then bored a hole into the bow to let the water
out, and the boat was eased over the dam.
Offered a job at boat owner Denton Offutt's store in
New Salem, Lincoln returned to the frontier village and
lived and worked there for six years.
According to New Salem carpenter Terry Miller, the
30-foot-long by 12-foot-wide replica was built of tulip
poplar timbers provided by the Illinois Department of
Natural Resources from the Trail of Tears State Forest
in southern Illinois.
Miller and volunteers Jerry Franklin, Gordon Koch and
others referred during construction to drawings in an
old magazine article about flatboats and research by
archaeologists at Southern Illinois University at
Carbondale who salvaged an 1800s flatboat from the Ohio
River near Olmstead, not far from at Cairo.
Power tools were used during the building process,
which began in mid-July.
"We'd still be working on it, if we didn't," Miller
said as he lashed the boat with thick ropes to wooden
posts embedded in the ground.
Nineteenth-century wood-joinery techniques were
employed, however, with more than 600 wooden pegs used
to hold together the joints. Nails were used only on the
roof of the cabin, Miller said.
According to site manager David Hedrick, the
barge-like vessels typically carried such goods as live
hogs, barrels of salt pork and whiskey and sacks of corn
downriver to New Orleans. The one-way trip took about
six weeks, after which the boats were disassembled, and
the lumber was sold. Some buildings made with the wood
still are standing today, he said.
"It was quite an adventure," Hedrick said.
Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Lincoln, New Salem
volunteer Greg Bergschneider of Virginia stood atop the
roof of the flatboat as sightseers snapped his picture.
He said the hour-long excursion, which began near New
Salem's Sangamon picnic area, was "fantastic."
"It's an honor and privilege of a lifetime to be able
to experience life as Lincoln did," Bergschneider said.
"It gave me goose bumps," added Don Ferricks, who
Don and Doris Hopwood of Lake Petersburg climbed
aboard the replica with their grandchildren - Allison,
Bradley and Carolyn Berg of Glenview. The children were
headed home with their parents but decided to see the
"It's thrilling," remarked Don Hopwood. "There are
more people here than I expected."
"It's cool," agreed grandson Bradley Berg, who's been
to New Salem often.
Hedrick said his biggest concern wasn't whether the
craft would float, but how the landing would go. There
would have been problems if the flatboat drifted into
the shallow, rocky water just past the dock.
"If they got it in there, I'm not sure how we'd ever
get it back," he said.
The cost of the boat - less than $6,000 - was paid
for with private donations. It will be stored in a barn
this winter, but Hedrick hopes money can be raised to
build a permanent display shelter.
"This has been a wonderful project," he said. "The
river is a very important part of the Lincoln story, and
this would be a great exhibit piece to talk about how
the pioneers used the river."
Ann Gorman can be reached through the metro desk at